Good Fruit Grower, Richard Lehnert // August 18, 2014
Arctic Apple employee, Joel Brooks, right, talks with an attendee of the Washington State Horticultural Association show on December 4, 2013 in Wenatchee, Washington. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
Genetically modified Arctic apples from Okanagan Specialty Fruits in British Columbia, Canada, are awaiting deregulation by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which has completed its review process, -including -public comment periods.
GMO crops are controversial and have spurred debate. The debaters include apple marketers who, while not sharing concerns about the safety of genetically modified crops, fear the pristine image of apples could be tarnished and the mere presence of GMO apples could cause consumer backlash and cause consumption of all apples to fall.
The U.S. Apple Association has stated the industry position: The science is probably okay, but we can’t risk apples losing their healthful image and being rejected by -consumers. We don’t need GMO apples.
The creators of Arctic apples say apple consumption could increase if sliced apples didn’t turn brown and unappetizing. Arctic apples contain a gene that silences production of the enzyme that causes flesh browning. Sliced apples with that trait could elevate the position of apples as a convenient snack food where whole apples are too large a portion.
Despite any benefits, crops that are Genetically Modified Organisms remain anathema to a core of dedicated, vocal opponents. These opponents would like to see these “Frankenfoods” banned entirely or, if not banned, studied more intensively and labeled.
And then there is the position of the United States government. In 1992, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that a trait introduced into a food crop by genetic engineering is no different than a trait introduced by traditional plant breeding methods.
Battles over whether foods containing genetically modified crops need to be labeled have taken place in ballot boxes and legislatures in several states and even at the county levels, with California, Washington State, and Vermont drawing the most attention. -Labeling was rejected in referenda by voters in Washington and California.
In Vermont, the legislature passed—and the governor signed—a new law requiring that foods containing GMO ingredients be so labeled. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has sued to stop that law from taking effect, saying it could set a precedent for a patchwork of state regulations that would make food manufacturing and marketing much more -difficult and expensive.
Meanwhile, the bulk of Americans—and -increasing numbers of people in other countries—eat GMO foods every day. In the United States in 2012, 93 -percent of the soybeans and 88 percent of the corn came from GMO plants. No allergies or other toxic reactions have been reported from the sweeteners, starches, flours, cooking oils, and salad dressings, or the food or fiber products made from genetically -engineered crops.
Genetic engineers keep moving forward, too, -identifying genes and enhancing new crops with traits that improve nutrient value, impart tolerance to drought, disease, insects, and salt, or provide a host of other benefits. The list of genes that modify traits grows longer.
What’s the issue?
Opponents of GMOs pose many objections. For example, they do not believe organic crops can share the environment with GMO crops, since GMO traits could contaminate non-GMO crops through cross-pollination in the field.
But one basic concern is potentially insurmountable: The process by which GMO crops are -“deregulated,” basically cleared for -market, doesn’t address the key issues. They have asked the Food and Drug -Administration to change the way it regulates GMO crops.
In 1992, the FDA declared that genetically modified crops are “substantially equivalent,” meaning they are not materially different from crops produced by ordinary breeding processes, the Federation of American Scientists explains. Unless there are special circumstances, GMO crops are designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and do not require premarket approval. They do not need to be labeled or otherwise treated as different.
GMO opponents don’t buy that. They claim that the genetic engineering methods themselves—the process of putting a new gene into a plant cell using a -bacterium or firing it in on a bullet from a gene gun—does not carefully position the gene on a chromosome in a way that produces just the one desired effect. They claim there could be multiple, unknown effects. The plant is -holistically different, they say.
The government undertakes the deregulation in ways that treat GMO crops as fundamentally the same as -regular crops. Two, and sometimes three, agencies of the U.S. government may weigh in, depending upon the nature of the introduced gene.
FDA regulates food from GMO crops in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. FDA is responsible for regulating the safety of GMO crops that are eaten by humans or animals while APHIS is responsible for -protecting -agriculture from pests and disease, including making sure that all new GMO plant varieties pose no pest risk to other plants.
When pesticides are bioengineered into food crops, the U.S. -Environmental Protection Agency becomes involved to make sure the pesticides are safe for human and animal consumption and do not pose unreasonable risks of harm to human health or the environment.
Opponents criticize the -deregulation process, saying the FDA does not require special testing of genetically engineered foods for safety. FDA’s position is that food derived from GMO plants must adhere to the same safety requirements under the Federal Food, Drug, and -Cosmetic Act that apply to food and food ingredients derived from traditionally bred plants.
A key government position is that it uses science as the foundation for sound decisions on policy, -rulemaking, and -regulatory approvals. Experts in -scientific fields (e.g., plant pathology, botany, -entomology, virology, -ecology, -environmental science, molecular -biology, and biochemistry) assess plant pest risk and analyze -environmental effects while -considering the most -current peer-reviewed scientific findings.
The FDA says those concerned about GMO crops can buy organic products, which, if labeled organic, must be free of GMOs. The FDA has said it has no objection to food manufacturers labeling food products as containing GMO crops—and that it might be helpful to consumers to do so. But consumer demand is not a reason for requiring labeling, the FDA says.
The FDA also says requiring labels would imply that there is something inherently inferior about food containing GMOs, and that would contradict its basic position that foods containing GMOs are not substantially different.
The government agencies have made the GMO deregulation process transparent in that applications and supporting documentation are posted on their websites and public comment periods are offered. Comments are posted for anyone to read.
The comment periods—there were two for Arctic apples—focus on obtaining information relevant to the agency’s mission—determining whether the food is safe or whether the GMO crop might in some way threaten the environment or be a pest to other plants.
In its original comment period in 2012, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service received 1,939 comments on the petition, according a report on its -website.
Several of these comments included electronic attachments consisting of consolidated identical or nearly identical letters, for a total of 72,745 comments. Concerns raised related to marketing and economic impacts; cross-pollination; and health, nutrition, and food safety.
The last comment period on Arctic apples closed in December 2013, and a decision from the inspection -service has been expected for some time.
Anyone wanting to track the ongoing GMO debate can find a number of sites on the Internet. Those interested in views from the anti-GMO side can visit the website of the Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org) and perhaps subscribe to Organic Bytes, a weekly e-mail newsletter. There, Ronnie Cummins wages battle against GMOs, the companies that make them, and the food companies that use them, and defends organic standards from debasement.
There are many websites on the pro-GMO side. One is the Genetic Literacy Project (www.geneticliteracyproject.org), which also has a weekly newsletter. Other pro-GMO sites include www.agbioworld.org, www.cropgen.org, and www.bio.org. Many of the larger companies involved with biotech crops have websites, and so does Okanagan Specialty Fruits (www.okspecialtyfruits.com and www.arcticapples.com), where it engages the public on behalf of its Arctic apples.
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He was a member of the staff of Good Fruit Grower from 2010 until 2015.Read his stories: Story Index